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What I Learned in Film School

I learned a bit about cinema studies while getting an MFA at Columbia in the late 1970s and a good deal more once I began teaching, first at NYU and then Cooper Union, around a decade later.

Always curious as to why students wanted to study film to begin with, I gave a standard first assignment that included a request for a description of the first movie that a student remembered seeing in a movie theater. As at least a third of the Cooper students were born outside the United States, the answers were fascinating. Really should have saved them…. Anyway, the exercise was obsolete before 2000, by which time the only students who saw their first movie as a projection were the home-schooled children of avant-garde filmmakers. In fact, at the dawn of the 21st century, only a handful of students knew what a 16mm projector was — and a few years later, it was virtually impossible to use one of these quaint devices.

When I first started teaching, it was a truism among my colleagues that their students thought film history began with Taxi Driver in 1976. (Back then, at least at Columbia, the foundational work was Hitchcock’s Psycho. I remember once hearing one of the instructors walking down the corridor idly whistling the anxiety theme from Bernard Herrmann’s score.) These days, film history begins with Jurassic Park — appropriate given its theme, director and pioneering use of CGI. I always knew I was teaching prehistoric stuff and used to kick off the semester with Thom Anderson’s 1975 documentary Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, which, as there was only one battered print in circulation, sometimes involved negotiating with a cinema studies teacher in Philadelphia.

After that, I had my dozen or so canonical films (The Man with a Movie Camera, Sunrise, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Trouble in Paradise, M, Zéro de conduite, In the Street, Pickpocket, Breathless) and the two eternal scars of shame, The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will. Under the rubric “Total(itarian) Cinema,” I annotated Leni Riefenstahl with some Busby Berkeley numbers and the 1935 Walt Disney Silly Symphony, Music Land. Actually, my favorite teaching movies were the ones that, because of their axiomatic nature, taught themselves: D. W. Griffith’s The Lonely Villa, Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight and Andy Warhol’s Poor Little Rich Girl. Some double bills — Citizen Kane and Meshes of the Afternoon, Detour and Bicycle Thieves— did the same.

Closure was an issue. At first, I used Jeanne Dielmann as my grand finale, later transitioning through Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and a double bill of Days of Being Wild and Irma Vep before arriving at the purely digital 21st century with Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten or Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark. I can’t say these films were especially appreciated, but it was the last class.

Screen magazine was at the acme of its prestige when I was in grad school, but I didn’t care to maintain that tradition. I only ever assigned Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (sometimes in conjunction with Miriam Hansen’s “Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship”) along with such other vintage thinkers as André Bazin, Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer. Other readings were culled from Tom Gunning (“The Cinema of Attraction”), Parker Tyler and sometimes Manny Farber. When teaching more theoretical courses, I drew on Jacques Ellul, Richard Dyer, Edgar Morin, Benedict Anderson and Peter Wollen, with whom I took several courses at Columbia. (I can’t remember what readings he assigned.) The wiggiest professor I had there was Peter Watkins, who assigned no readings — it was all out of his head. I have searched in vain for my class notes.

To be honest, I’m not sure what other instructors put on their syllabi. These days, I’m teaching a graduate seminar on cinephilia. Among other things, it can be construed as a meta introductory cinema studies course — i.e., what might one teach in such a course — so I guess I’ll find out.

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